Labonte glad to be back
By Mike Harris
When Terry Labonte announced his retirement from racing in 2006, he intended to put that part of his life behind him.
So much for good intentions ó the two-time NASCAR champion keeps getting pulled back in.
Last year, Michael Waltrip asked him to help out the new team for three races, assuring them of making the fields, thanks to the past champion’s provisional.
Now, the 51-year-old Labonte is back again, four races into a six-race stint at Petty Enterprises. He’s filling in for Kyle Petty, who’s taking some time away to work as a TV analyst on TNT’s Cup broadcasts. And he gets to be teammates with younger brother Bobby.
“When I get to the racetrack it’s like old times again,” Terry Labonte last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Bobby and I always parked our motorhomes next to each other, and we’ve been able to do that again. We both have similar driving styles so we are able to bounce things off of each other once again. In the process, I think you’ve seen us both have decent runs, but we just need a little luck. I couldn’t be happier with the decision to come back for a few races.”
The younger Labonte, 44, said getting back on track hasn’t been too difficult for his brother.
“I think he’s enjoying this because it’s not 38 races,” the 2001 Cup champion said. “Like he said, it would be great to run the first 28 and, if you didn’t make it in the Chase, you could say, ‘All right, see you guys next year.’ To run 38 is just very taxing on you from traveling. So I don’t think he misses it a whole lot. I think he misses the racing, but the week-in and week-out grind is hard on everybody.”
The elder Labonte certainly doesn’t regret retiring after a Cup career that began in 1978 and included 22 victories and championships in 1984 and 1996.
He spends part of the year on his ranch in his Texas and also stays busy with a mobile marketing company that he co-owns and is based in North Carolina.
“I’m in the office just about every day when I’m home,” Labonte said. “My partner runs the thing. All I do is tinker, but I’m not bored or anything. I have a good life.”
He insists he hasn’t missed racing all that much.
“I’d watch some races and think, ‘Man, I wish I was there. That’s one of my favorite tracks,”‘ Labonte said. “Then there’s other races I’d watch and think, ‘Phew, I’m glad I’m not there.’ It kind of would go both ways.”
With his six-race return engagement, Labonte finally got a chance to drive NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, a vehicle considered a handful for almost everyone.
“I wanted to drive one of these cars so bad because everybody says they’re so different from whatever I got to race,” he said. “The first time out at Pocono, they had me terrified of this car because I had never driven one and all the horror stories I heard. I thought, ‘Oh my God. What’s going to happen here?’ But it really wasn’t that bad.”
In his first four races in the new car, Labonte has finished between 17th (at Sonoma) and 34th (at New Hampshire).
Though he found the car difficult to get balanced, he said he’s happy with his performance.
“I wanted to have fun and do what I could to help this team continue to move forward. We’ve been able to do both,” Labonte said. “I guess you could say that I’ve caught the racing bug again.”
Just don’t expect him to be looking for another ride any time soon.